Nov 1, 2021 - Technology

The awkward truth of Zuckerberg's metaverse

Illustration of a frowning face made from the Meta logo

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The cavalcade of wonders in Mark Zuckerberg's metaverse show last week left out one crucial screenshot: what your body actually looks like while your mind has gone meta.

The catch: The real you is just sitting in a chair wearing goggles.

The video mock-ups of the metaverse Zuckerberg unveiled showed us what remote-presence wizardry might look like from within the 3D dimension. But they omitted the prosaic reality of most current VR.

  • Today's headsets mostly block out the "real world" — and sometimes induce wooziness, headaches and even nausea.

Why it matters: If you fear screen time atrophies your flesh and cramps your soul or find Zoom drains your energy, wait till you experience metaverse overload.

The big picture: Facebook's metaverse project aims to bring productivity to the remote workplace and fun to after-hours online frolics by moving more of our lives to a 3D game world.

  • The vision is to liberate our digital existence from the confines of the screen, restore our freedom of movement on a more "embodied" internet and enable deeper interpersonal connections in a social environment where we can see and interact with other people.
  • "When you're in a meeting in the metaverse," Zuckerberg said, "it'll feel like you're right in the room together, making eye contact, having a shared sense of space and not just looking at a grid of faces on a screen."

Yes, but: Right now, the metaverse isn't "embodied" at all. It's an out-of-body experience where your senses take you somewhere else and leave your body behind on a chair or couch or standing like a blindfolded prisoner.

Mixed reality and augmented reality tech and techniques promise to heal that rift and make 3D work and play a more mobile physical experience.

  • There are fledgling efforts in this direction — like some fitness apps, the "Beat Saber" game Zuckerberg praised in his talk and the experimental pass-through video features, mixing real and digital fields of vision, that Oculus introduced last summer.

Of note: Safety will always be a concern. Remember those videos of Wii users smashing their TVs? That's just a preview of what can go wrong when our bodies are moving around real objects while our minds are in virtual space.

What's next: AR glasses of the future could help offer the promise of more seamlessly blending the real world and the metaverse. But the hardware holy grail of lightweight, affordable glasses with all-day battery life is many years off — as is so much of Zuckerberg's vision.

In the meantime, observers expect a metaverse that's delivered to the public piecemeal.

  • Aspects of it will turn up first in gaming worlds like Roblox and Fornite and crypto-based products like NFTs rather than 3D virtual offices and parties.
  • Zuckerberg says he envisions people accessing the metaverse sometimes in full 3D, sometimes through AR glasses, and sometimes just through "computers and phones" — which could be nifty but won't be any more "embodied" than today's internet.

Between the lines: Facebook/Meta — along with the rest of today's VR industry — promises to roll out the new 3D internet with due care toward privacy, safety and ethics.

  • But virtual-world makers will feel the same incentives to boost engagement and hold onto users' eyeballs in the metaverse that they have on today's social platforms.
  • That could leave us all nostalgic for our current era of screen-blurred vision, misinformation-filled newsfeeds and privacy compromises.
  • If there's some way to prevent the combination of an ad-driven economy and virtual-engagement metrics from reproducing all of Facebook's drawbacks in the metaverse, Zuckerberg and his team have yet to lay it out.

Be smart: From VR's invention 30 years ago, its makers have always dreamed of repairing the Cartesian mind/body split that so many tech products promote.

  • They're inspired by the liberating vision of "Star Trek's" holodeck — but they keep ending up with"Matrix"-style pods instead.

The bottom line: It's possible to imagine an "at-best" scenario in which VR — powered by more fluid tech, innovative fitness applications and passthrough features that mix real and digital fields of vision — becomes truly embodied. 

  • But the business realities of the social internet and the likelihood of slow incremental improvements in today's hardware make the worst case look like a much better bet.
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